Every writer — even the intermediate or advanced — wants to know how they can get from where they are right now skill-wise to a better place.
After all, a writer should never stop seeking out ways to do their job better. That’s why we practice. It’s why we read books about writing, go to conferences, interact with other writers, and take classes when we can.
But becoming a better writer, though nowhere near simple, may not actually be as complicated as you might think.
Here’s a quick guide to improve your writing — and yourself.
Erase your lame excuses
In case you weren’t aware — and if you aren’t, that’s OK, it’s always good to learn — “I don’t feel like writing” is a terrible reason not to write. In fact, even though it may be one of the most common excuses people give for not getting their work done, it’s still a terrible excuse. You have no one to blame for listening to it but yourself.
There are days it’s almost 9:00 PM by the time my puppy finally gets tired and goes to sleep. In my world, that often becomes prime writing time despite the fact that I’ve worked on and off all day (in-between walks and playing), I’m tired, I’d rather watch TV, and I don’t want to write anymore.
But guess what? If I actually want to accomplish anything as a writer, I kind of have to get over all my excuses and write anyway. It’s not that I don’t enjoy writing — I’d stop doing it if I hated it. But life has a way of trying to prevent you from doing what you want/need to do. And far too many people sort of just let it.
Erase those excuses and replace them with strategies. Oh, I’m tired? I’ll work out for 10 minutes, get a cup of coffee, or whatever else I know wakes me up just enough to allow me to get the work done. I’d rather watch TV? Those shows are still going to be there tomorrow. Sometimes, when it can, writing has to come first. Stop letting your excuses have so much power over you, gosh darn it!
Stop obsessing about writing “like” a writer
Too many new writers think they have to somehow change the way they write to be more “professional” or “sound more like a real writer.” It happened to me, and without knowing it, it’s probably happened to you too. We read an article or book written by what we consider to be a good writer and we’re tempted to model our prose after theirs because that will somehow make it better, right?
Not really. Because it’s not in your own voice, and that means it’s not as good as you could technically make it. Writing the way you THINK a writer should write isn’t allowing you to refine your own skills or get comfortable in your own writing style, and that’s not going to help you much down the road.
Write in your own voice. Just let yourself pour words from your brain onto a blank page without worrying about how it sounds — not yet, anyway. Eventually, a writer learns how to write the way they speak. That’s their style and it’s unlike anyone else’s, which is what differentiates their work from the rest. You’ll get there. Take it slow, and stop obsessing about being “like” anyone else.
Write often and write terribly
Another common writing barrier — especially among those just starting out, though it never fully fades — is the fear that your writing isn’t good enough and never will be. Instead of writing anyway, though, so many people either stop trying or never try at all because they feel like their writing is bad or won’t ever get better.
But how can you expect to ever get better at writing if you never write? Every writer who has ever lived has started out writing terrible things. Writing is a skill — you aren’t born knowing how to do it well or at all. You learn. And the only way to do that is to write awful, embarrasing things until you figure out how to do it better.
So if you really want to improve and write a story that meets your own personal standards of “goodness,” the best advice I have is to write so many bad things that you eventually accidentally write something that’s a little less bad. And then you do it again, and again, until you’re writing more good things than terrible things.
When you’re not writing, feed your mind with stories
When I’m not writing (or, you know, being a mostly responsible adult) I’m reading. Or watching a movie or TV show. If there’s a story to be consumed, I’m all in.
While this may seem counterintuitive — how are you supposed to get better at writing when you aren’t writing? — you physically and mentally cannot write 24/7. You will die. Probably. Your brain and body need a break, because writing is exhausting whether non-writers want to believe it or not. And while you’re not writing, it is possible to relax while also learning more about stories. By watching stories. In the form of modern film and television masterpieces. Because why not?
I suppose it doesn’t REALLY matter how you spend your time away from writing as long as you are giving your mind the time it needs to recharge. But I feel both more motivated and more mindful of the storytelling techniques I’m using after I’ve watched a story play out in front of me on a screen. Or read it in a book. Either way works.
And there’s the added benefit of getting out into the world and Experiencing Real Life if you do this by going to a theater to watch a movie, play, or musical. Every type of performance is art in its own right, and the experience is made even more worthwhile if you’re socializing and living outside your fictional worlds while consuming them.
Always be on the lookout for new stories. There’s always something to learn from them — at least, that’s what I’ve come to believe.
See? Improving your writing can be fun and fulfilling, even if it still takes work. Try not to stress about it. I mean, stress a little bit, because that’s good for you. But don’t quit because it’s hard. Persist because it’s worth it.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.